28 January 2018

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd - Gilbert Adair

Rating: ✫✫

This book is an interesting one. It was passed onto me because I'm a big fan of Agatha Christie's books, and this is, for want of a better word, a parody. The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is clearly a play on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was intrigued to say the least, and not quite sure what to expect. I wondered  at first if this was going to be the same story as in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with the same premise and the same characters, but with twists that aren't in the original novel. It turns out this is actually an entirely new novel, with the title and a few subtle references being the only direct link to Christie's work.

I enjoyed this book, if only for those little references. It was a very straightforward story, with a range of typical characters you'd normally find in crime fiction, including a detective who is brought in spontaneously. There's also plenty of backstory to pad the plot out. However, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this book if I wasn't a fan of Christie. I imagine I would have found it rather a dull plot, with the only excitement coming from fictional sleuth Evadne's dialogue. It was a fun book with some merits, but I can't imagine I'll ever read it again.

It's the Christmas holidays, and Colonel ffolkes and his wife Mary are hosting a number of house guests at their country home. The Colonel's daughter, Selina, brings with her two guests of her own: Don Duckworth, and Raymond Gentry, who soon rubs each and every one of the other guests up the wrong way. Early the next morning, Gentry is found in the attic, murdered.

With a lot of heavy snow, Colonel ffolkes relies on the aid of local, retired Chief Inspector, Trubshawe. With Evadne Mount, a crime writer, also staying at the house, Trubshawe soon finds he has met his match, and the pair investigate the murder in their own, very different ways.

*spoiler alert*

The Plot

I think the title is one of the most important aspects of this book, at least in my opinion. I did worry that it was in danger of giving too much away. We meet Roger ffolkes very early on, and it's difficult not to assume he is the key to this plot. This is further emphasised by Roger avoiding telling Trubshawe his real surname, and I really did believe it was all a bit too obvious. Roger is, of course, the key to the whole plot, but not in the way I expected. The final reveal was very well done, as I didn't imagine that Roger Murgatroyd was not actually Roger ffolkes in disguise. I'm glad this wasn't as obvious as it could have been, as it would have been really disappointed, and I think I would have been dissatisfied with the entire book on that basis. Thankfully, Adair was clever enough to sidestep that.

Skipping ahead to Trubshawe's questioning, I really liked the idea that all of the suspects were questioned together. You don't tend to see that in detective novels, and it was interesting to see it approached in this way. I am, however, still questioning whether or not this went on too long. There were several interesting backstories, but I must confess I found them a bit tedious after a while. If they'd all been shorter, they would have added a lot to the story. I just think they were dragged on a little longer than was necessary. There's a fine line between creating suspense and dragging it on too long. I think in this instance the line was crossed.

All-in-all, however, I think the plot progressed well. It was gentle, but there was enough detail for it to move along at a steady pace. It was great to see little references that really dated the story as well, giving us a steady indication of just when the story was set. The one that stood out to me the most was when Don called feminism "nonsense". Pfft! Definitely a demonstration of a different time, and done to great effect.

What I really did enjoy was Evie's scene right at the end, at the climax of the novel, revealing what she had discovered. It was great to see Trubshawe forced to take a step back. Evie is a really endearing character, so I thoroughly enjoyed her chance at the spotlight; how she convinced the culprit to reveal themselves, and how she pieced everything together, despite Trubshawe's doubts. My criticism would be that all of a sudden, after this point, that was it. Farrar revealed that he was guilty, and gave an explanation as to why. After that? Done. Finished. Don't expect anything else. I found that really strange, because Adair had some interesting characters in the mix, and it would have been interesting to find out what was to happen to them from that point on. That being said, the dynamic last few lines were quite satisfying, so I can't be too disappointed that it was a bit abrupt. I did, however, enjoy that we heard Farrar's explanation through his own voice. Viewing the scene through his perspective made it more personable, and more intriguing. I didn't see it coming, but I think the change in perspective was a very natural tool to utilise here, and I think it worked well. 

The Characters

What I loved about this book was the range of very different characters. There is nothing worse than a crime novel with dull characters, and even worse when there aren't enough to provide the story with substance. Adair avoided these pitfalls. 

Trubshawe is your classic, eccentric detective. Retired, meticulous, and very Scotland Yard. I originally liked him very much. Yet as the story progressed, Evie takes over as the favourite sleuth. I loved this. It was very carefully done. Evie starts off as a bit of a busy-body and know-it-all, but she and Trubshawe change places very gradually over the course of the story. Trubshawe becomes just a little bit too pompous, and Evie becomes more likeable and interesting.

As for the other characters, they are all good enough. They don't really stand out, but in the confines of this story and it's limited setting, that's fairly understandable. Roger ffolkes comes across as a little arrogant, and Selina very na├»ve, but they're also endearing enough to hold the story together. Unfortunately, we don't come to know the victim well before he is murdered, which is a shame. You often get a feel for their manner, and this resonates throughout of the story. Ah well. 

A good range of characters, although they do sort of fade into the background.

Christie's Influence

Predictably, the best bits about this book are the subtle references to Christie's Poirot novels. There are several direct references which are humorous, but the ones that really caught my eye were those that weren't immediately obvious. If you don't know your Poirot novels, they wouldn't have been noticeable. I loved the little nods to her work. It really livened the book up!

Evadne Mount is obviously the Ariadne Oliver character that Christie saw in herself. They have the same eccentric nature. Perhaps that's why I liked Evie so much (Ariadne is one of my favourite characters in Poirot's world). 

"I've written nine novels and three plays - my latest, The Wrong Voice, is in its fourth triumphant year in the West End as we speak - beat that Agatha Christie!"

A reference, of course, to Christie's famous play, The Mousetrap, which still runs in theatres up and down the country. Every true Christie fan has seen this play (myself included), so it was a nice little nod to her enormous success.

There are so many less obvious references that it's hard to name them all. I've listed some of my favourites here:

  • When Gentry uses the word 'penetrating' excessively, it's a nod to the overuse of the same word by Cynthia Dacres in Three Act Tragedy. Evie says she finds it most annoying, as was Christie's original intention, of course.
  • When Tobermory is shot (which is an absolute outrage and I'll never get over it!), Trubshawe says the reason was to prevent him continuing on as a dumb witness - just as in the title of the same name by Christie, Dumb Witness
  • Evie references an unknown sleuthing competitor, but reveals his identity by choosing to steal his use of the 'little grey cells'. Good old Poirot.
  • The final revelation that Gentry was not the intended victim, but a distraction, is an idea used by Christie in Three Act Tragedy. Sir Charles Cartwright chooses to have a dress rehearsal of murder, and Farrar is made to have followed suit, to good effect.
  • Addie mentions a plot where all the suspects are in on it, like a jury. Familiar to anyone who knows anything about Murder on the Orient Express... (there is also mention of a journey on the Blue Train (Mystery of the Blue Train), if you can find it)

Using and adapting Christie's title meant there had to be some references in there somewhere, and they just made the whole thing more enjoyable. They lifted a pretty lacklustre plot and generic characters into something more, and these little nods to the queen of crime are why I actually persevered with the book.

The Verdict

To sum up, this was a pretty average book. The plot was okay, the characters were okay, and the structure of the story was okay. It was all very okay. It was Christie's influence that made it more than okay. The little nods, the use of the character of Evie, and the interesting title are what made this book stand out. I enjoyed it for those, but it is by no means a fantastic piece of fiction, or, for that matter, a book I would ever read again.

If not for the Christie fan in me, I'm not sure this would have rated as two stars at all. Thanks to her association, it just about manages that.

No comments: